Original name of Bengal is ‘Vanga’, the historic delta of the Ganges–Bahmaputra in the northeastern part of South Asia, now divided between the Indian state of West Bengal and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. From the 8th to the 12th centuries it was ruled by a Buddhist Pala dynasty. From c. 1200 it was governed by independent Muslim rulers and from 1576 it formed part of Mughal Empire. When the Mughal power declined in the 18th century an independent Muslim dynasty emerged in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It’s rulers, the Nawabs, soon came into conflict with the British traders, who in collaboration with the local vested interest groups took possession of the Nawab’s realm in 1757 playing vile tricks. Bengal, thenceforth, was the base for British expansion in India. Assam was joined to Bengal from 1838 to 1874.
The Bengali Hindus who saw thousand years of Buddhist and Muslim rule now took the side of the new British rulers who in turn made them Zamindars and landlords overthrowing the Muslims. They forced the peasants to cultivate indigo and marijuana and extracted exorbitant land tax. While they languished in poverty the colonialists raised the yearly revenue from 8 million taka in 1764 to 180 million in 1872. The Muslims were the big losers due to the new policy and their extreme miseries were aptly reflected in the words of the British historian William Hunter: ‘One hundred years ago it was impossible for a Muslim to be poor. Now after one hundred years it is equally impossible for him to be rich.’
Who is a Bangali?
From the 19th century onward it were the Hindus of Bengal who exclusively identified themselves as Bangalis. They never considered the Muslims of Bengal as Bangalis and a Muslim also never claimed to be one of them. Dr. Suniti Kumar Bandhyapddhaya, Bengali linguist and literati in an article titled ‘Jatir Sangskriti O Sahitya’ defined a Bangali in this way:
In his modern culture a Bangali is 25 percent European. But the extent to which he can be treated as an European depends on his social and economic status. He is half Indian and the remaining 25 percent of his self is also distorted by Indian influence.
There is no place for a Muslim in Suniti Kumar’s definition of a Bangali. But he made a passing reference about the influence of Islam over a part of the Bengali nation in this way:
There is an influence of Islam over a part of the Bengali nation. The extent of that influence remains to be assessed by the historians—but that influence is negligible.
He mentioned well over hundred names who have contributed to Bengali culture. The list does not include a single Muslim name. To him Bangali is the other name of Hindu. One gets similar impression from the writings of Dr. Sukumar Sen. Jogesh Chandra Bidyanidhi wrote an article listing 13 Bengali festivals in 12 months popularly known in Bengali phrase as ‘Baro Masey Tero Parbon’. In that he did not find a single Muslim festival deserving any mention. Panchkari Bandapaddhya never thought that the Muslims are a part of Bengali culture. Bhobotosh Ghosh in ‘Bangalir Manabdharma’ defined Bangali as an inhabitant of West Bengal.
Curzon’s Muslim Bengal
The Ganges – Brahmaputra delta which formed present Bangladesh was a major trading center for over two thousand years. This silk road was the first historical vehicle to bring the message of Islam to the South Asian subcontinent as means of maritime, commercial and missionary communication between the Muslim world and Bengal. Excavations at Paharpur (Rajshahi) and Mainamati have led to the discovery of coins of the Abbasid period (750-1500). The mosques built around 680 A. D at Lalmonirhat and the oldest sufi shrine built in 850 A.D at Bayzid Bustam, Chittagong are the relics which speak for Muslim influence on the region. Other shrines of Muslim saints include Sultan Mahmud (1047) in Bogra, Sultan Rumi (1053) in Mymensingh, Shah Jalal in Sylhet and Khan Jahan Ali in Bagerhat. It is obvious that the Muslim missionaries, saints and preachers arrived in Bangladesh 400 years before the Muslim rule was established in 1202 A. D. with the conquest of the Turkish General Bakhtyiar Khilji establishing the Muslim rule over the vast region to continue up to 1757 leaving the imprint of Muslim’s passage through its history. The Muslim rule imposed unprecedented political union combining Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa. Without the influence of Islam it is hard to imagine the culture of the region working out the way as it did.
For five hundred and fifty years of Muslim rule, Bengal’s culture displayed two distinct influences –Muslim and Hindu. During hundred years of British rule that division widened further due to their divide-and-rule policy. Over the time religion became conspicuously joined to regional and national politics. Early expressions of nationalism and partition of the sub continent into Hindu and Muslim regions crystalised in the Hindu dominated Indian National Congress (1885).
But the creation the All Indian Muslim League in Dhaka under the leadership of Nawab Sir Salimullah Bahadur had to wait until 1905 when the Bengali Hindus waged an all-out war to annul the partition of Bengal. Realizing that the Muslims of East Bengal were oppressed and exploited by the Calcutta based affluent Hindus, partition of Bengal was carried out by the British Viceroy in India, Lord Curzon, despite strong Indian nationalist opposition and Hindu Bengali indignation.
The Indian National Congress converted it into a nationwide mass movement of the Indian Hindus. East Bengal, because of poor communication had been long discriminated against in favor of the privileged West Bengal.
Now Curzon adopted one of several schemes for creating a Muslim Bengal: to unite Assam which had been a part of the province until 1874, 15 districts of east Bengal and thus form the province. The capital was Dhaka and the people were mainly Muslim.
The Hindus of West Bengal, who controlled most of Bengal’s commerce and professional and rural life rose in revolt against the British scheme.
Agitation against the partition included mass meetings, rural unrest, a swadeshi movement, and a boycott of foreign cloth. The partition was carried out despite the agitation and the extreme opposition went underground to launch strong terrorist movement. To face the Hindu Nationalist Congress which took up the Hindu Bengali cause, the Muslim League was formed in Dhaka to take up the cause of Muslim Bengal supporting the partition. To annul the partition the Hindu Bengali nationalist Barindra Kumar Ghosh formed a terrorist organization named ‘Anushillon’. Their slogan was ‘Bande Matorom’.
Muslims had their own slogan ‘Zindabad’. Khudiram, Bagha Jatin all fought to bring an end to the partition. Unable to stand against the Hindu opposition British Government, in 1911, reunited two distinct parts of Bengal again abolishing with it the High Court, the Secretariat, the government establishment and the residences that were established in Dhaka.
The British government had also promised to establish a university at Dhaka which, because of the Hindu opposition came into existence only as late as 1921. The dissolution of the partition was done solely to appease the West Bengali Hindu sentiment. It was the first stab on the back of Muslim Bengal which wanted to be free from Hindu exploitation. The Curzon Hall in Dhaka still bears the historical evidence of the short- lived independent Muslim Bengal.
The annulment of the partition created still more hatred, distrust and animosity between the two communities whose religious beliefs and practices are polls apart. With the beginning of the self- government system Muslim leaders like Sir Abdur Rahim and his son-in law H.S. Suhrawardy organized the Muslim youth. Communal frenzy and riots killed thousands. Religion started playing a vital role in all matters. Seats were distributed in the Bengal Council on religious considerations and in 1935 the reserved seats for the Muslims numbered 119 out of 250 in the Council. In that the Hindu elites got only 58. Between 1930 and 1938 the Calcutta University had a Muslim chancellor. During that time the Hindu logo was changed. Sher-e-Bangla became Bengal’s prime minister in 1937. Text books were revised to expunge Hindu influence.
The Education Reform Bill was passed in 1940 for the same purpose. When Fazlul Huq made primary education compulsory the Hindus opposed it because that would extend equal opportunity to the Muslims to be educated like them.
The Hindu-Muslim riot in 1946 killed 10,000. Rapes, looting and burning were rampant. It was the time when Mahatma Gandhi observed fast unto death after he saw the pictures of atrocities committed on Muslim men, women, and children by the Hindus. It was after this riot that it became clear to all that Muslims and Hindus could not live together.
The final victory
Convinced about the need for a separate homeland for the Muslims the Lahore Resolution of 1940 was adopted and in 1947 Pakistan was created based on the concept: ‘Muslims are a nation’. The people of present Bangladesh voted for Pakistan as a Muslim majority area to escape the wrath of Hindu chauvinism. But the problem arose in no time and on 21 February the martyrs of the language movement decided our course again leading us along the path of yet another independence in 1971 at a very high cost. Thus we passed from freedom to freedom over more than a century and still we are unsure as to whom to believe, trust and rely on. In 1947 we joined West Pakistan as a Muslim majority area based on religious affinity. In 1971 we had to say no to religion as the main ingredient of our nationhood and put forward our mother –tongue Bangla as the uniting force. The poverty-stricken Muslims of this country would be an extinct species if Sher-e–Bangla had not created the ‘Rin Salishy Board ‘and saved the peasants from the atrocities of the blood sucking money-lenders and mahajans. We were given a political identity in British India by the Muslim League against the Congress. Then there was the Awami Muslim League made in Pakistan followed by Awami League which again consolidated our unity against the Muslim League. We elected the Awami League candidates in 1970 to take the oath and to declare our independence. Our Armed Forces did that job on 26 March 1971 and led the Mukti Bahini in the war of independence against the Pakistan Army. After nine months of bloody war we liberated our country on 16 December 1971.
This is our history —all of it is religion
Today the slogans like’ Tumik Ami Ke – Bangali, Bangali ‘are sending a shuddering shock wave all across the country. Our Constitution has already laid down that the citizens of Bangladesh are ‘Bangladeshis’ not ‘Bangalis’. Because Islam is the religion of 92 percent of the people, Islam has been rightly made the state religion.
Unlike the United States, however, where the President puts his hand on the Bible to take oath, we do not use Qur’an to do the same. We have noticed with an agonizing discomfort that there has been an insidious move in recent days to belittle the great religion Islam, its Prophet and the Book.
Ninety two percent of the people here practice this religion and at overwhelming majority of them take the name of Muhammad (sm) in every breath as a healing medicine when our disgruntled doctors joins politics leaving their sacred profession. Now after three weeks its first two demands are: Arrest Mahmudur Rahman because he, according to them, has committed the most heinous crime by way of publishing the contents of a blog which hurled slurs on Islam, Quran and the Prophet. The Muslim communities are not happy. When they came out on the street, on Friday, to protest against the calumny spread by the bloggers they were killed by indiscriminate shooting by the police.
The city dwellers understand the power game and can identify by name all who are patronizing such play – acting but most of our common people who live in villages are greatly baffled and bewildered by the current state of affairs. The sooner this senseless game -play is over the better it is for the country and its people. We appreciate that prime minister Sheikh Hasina assured the Muslims of this country that they also have the same right as others to follow their religion and that none will be allowed to demean their religion. It is comforting that she has now realized that the vast number of Muslims of this country and their religion need government’s protection against the bloggers and their Godfathers who have a long hand.
[Writer was a Member of Parliament from 1996 to 2006 and author of ‘Islam: The Last Hope’]